Making regional genre fare in the ‘70s was a double-edged sword. On one hand, you could make what you wanted if you stuck to your tiny budget and there were also enough independent distribution outlets that would allow you to get your work out to the public without much interference. On the other hand, there was always a danger of never seeing profit and/or falling prey to an unscrupulous distributor who could steal your work out from under you.
Thus, a lot of promising regional filmmakers weren’t able to use their work as a stepping stone to bigger things and their work fell into cultish obscurity. Frederick Friedel was one such director. He made a couple of films on a regional level, only to have the infamous Harry Novak snatch them out from under him via crafty business maneuvers. Thankfully, his work was subsequently rediscovered on video and has built a following over time. Axe was his first film and shows why his work continues to intrigue: simply put, he used his freedom as a regional filmmaker to bring an unusual, artsy sensibility to horror/exploitation concepts.
The storyline of Axe is built on the collision of two plot threads. The first revolves around a trio of crooks — brutal leader Steele (Jack Canon), sleazy Lomax (Ray Green) and reluctant hood Billy (Friedel) — as they commit criminal carnage and look for a place to hide. The other revolves around Lisa (Leslie Lee), a quietly disturbed young woman who lives with and cares for her invalid grandfather at a secluded farm. The crooks end up at the farmhouse, where Steele and Lomax can’t resist toying with Lisa — and this kicks off a battle of wills that reveals Lisa is as resourceful and deadly as the crooks.
Axe doesn’t shy away from its opportunities for brutality: the crook part of the plot has some surprisingly intense and twisted scenes of brutality and the second half has some equally violent slashing scenes.
That said, it’s Friedel’s approach to his material that makes the film so interesting: his direction has an offhandedly artsy flair to it, particularly in the scenes at the farmhouse. He’s not afraid of using silence in scenes to create a feeling of dread, offsets the grim events of the storyline with oft-lovely photography by Austin McKinney and goes for unique juxtapositions in his editing. The performances are raw but everyone has an interesting screen presence that pulls them through — and a jazz-influenced score by George Newman Shaw and John Willhelm seals the film’s eerie mood.
In short, Axe distinguishes itself in the ‘70s indie horror sweepstakes by dint of its personalized style. That’s the kind of quality that fans of regional genre fare respond to and this movie has it on full display.